Monthly Archives: February 2010

A few thoughts on The Wordy Shipmates

I expressed some mixed feelings about Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates in my post from earlier this week, and I thought I’d expand on those a bit. For the most part, I enjoyed reading the book. It’s under 300 pages and is a quick read, so it’s a good way to learn or review a little history, especially if longer, more serious history books aren’t your thing (which they aren’t for me).

Vowell tells the story of the pilgrims who sailed to America in 1630 and founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She analyzes what motivated them to leave England, and then describes the problems that faced them once they arrived — the challenge of settling themselves in to a strange and difficult landscape, the internal conflicts and disagreements that inevitably came up, and the wars with Indians that eventually arose. The most interesting parts were her descriptions of the Puritan’s religious beliefs and the legacy they left to America. She argues repeatedly that although we think of ourselves as cultural descendants of the Puritans, our relationship to their legacy is enormously complicated. The evangelicals of today who might seem like the Puritans’ most obvious descendants differ from them in crucial ways. John Winthrop’s famous use of the phrase “city on a hill” to describe the new colony appears again and again in the book, most effectively when Vowell launches a scathing critique of Ronald Reagan’s many uses of it for purposes that would have been quite a surprise to Winthrop.

Vowell makes all of this interesting (although it’s interesting material to begin with, I think) by her sense of humor and her method of moving back and forth in time, making connections between what happened then and has happened since. She has a sarcastic, smart-ass tone that provides some laughs (I don’t have the book anymore, so I can’t give examples. unfortunately) and also keeps the narrative light and fast-moving. At times it’s a little glib for my taste, but the truth is, I don’t know of many history books written in such an amusing manner, so overall, I appreciated it. She also frequently jumps forward in time, sometimes to tell a lengthy story, such as her discussion of Ronald Reagan or her story of visiting Plymouth Plantation with some family members. She also uses contemporary references to help explain her points, such as her description of how American history gets portrayed on The Brady Bunch. It gets silly sometimes, but it’s also fun, and illuminating.

You can tell from my descriptions that I’m not a huge fan of Vowell’s sense of humor. My other complaint is that I would have liked a better sense of the book’s structure. There are no chapters, which means it’s hard to get a sense of the overall structure of the book — what its historical starting and ending points are and how the narrative elements are organized.

However, if you want a quick review of early American history, this is a great place to go, or if you want to know more about the Puritans and their legacy (again, without reading something longer and weightier), this book will suit you.

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Reading Notes

I had a perfectly fine day today, especially since on Mondays I don’t have class and get to work from home. But even when working from home, colleagues can get aggravating (thanks to email!), so I spent the second part of the day irritated, annoyed, and feeling mentally scattered. It’s more often my colleagues who cause me problems than my students, who, for the most part, are great, or at least fine, or at least … gone at the end of the semester. All is well, but I’m still feeling mentally scattered, which means you get bullet point notes on my reading.

  • I finished Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates this past weekend, and I’m not sure what I think of it. Vowell has a light, humorous style, which is entertaining, but her sense of humor isn’t exactly mine. It’s fine, but I don’t love it. The book is about the pilgrims, and Hobgoblin, who is teaching a class on early American literature right now, says that she’s a little shaky on her facts. I think it’s hard to write popular history well, especially in a book as short and fast-moving as this one, so a certain amount of oversimplification is probably inevitable. But I wonder just how much of it is there.
  • I’m in the middle of Balzac’s Cousin Bette right now, and I’m unsure of that one too. Basically everyone in that book is either really and truly awful, or so good they are thoroughly unbelievable. The book is much more about social criticism than about character development and realistic action. Everyone is desperate for money or sex or social advancement, or probably all three, and the world it depicts is a truly frightful place. All that is fine for subject matter as a novel, but for me it gets dull without a stronger sense of character than what I’m getting here.
  • I’m going to pick up Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley next for my mystery book group. It’s not a mystery, really, but we decided it’s fine to branch out a bit into crime fiction. Hobgoblin really enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to it.
  • And now on to some newly acquired books. Book Mooch has been working really well for me lately, and I’ve managed to snag a copy of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps, which is a collection of linked stories. After my success with Olive Kitteridge, I’m looking forward to reading another example, especially from a writer I love. I also received a copy of Laurie King’s A Monstrous Regiment of Women, the second in her Mary Russell series. I’d like to see if I will like the second book better than the first; many have told me it’s better, and they are probably right. Then just today I received a copy of Cane by Jean Toomer. It looks fascinating; a quick flip through the book shows that it mixes fiction with poetry, and there are also sections of dialogue written as though it were a play. I’m curious how it will all fit together.
  • I have a couple new nonfiction books as well. First is John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. Ever since reading Nicholson Baker’s book The Anthologist, which is largely about poetry, I’ve been in a mood to read more books about it — as well as to read more poetry. I also received Adam Thirlwell’s book The Delighted States, which is subtitled “A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations, & a Variety of Helpful Indexes.” Now, to be honest, in spite of such a lengthy subtitle, I still don’t have much of an idea what the book is about, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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Weirded out by American Wife

I’m not quite halfway through listening to Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife and I’m enjoying it immensely, but I’m also finding it to be a really odd emotional experience. I’m enjoying it so much I’m tempted to get the audiobook out of the car and listen to it in the house, which is something I never, ever do. I’m caught up in Alice Lindgren’s voice, her thoughtful, careful, smart way of thinking about everything that happens to her.

The weird emotional experience part began when Alice met Charlie Blackwell, whom she has not yet married, but has become engaged to. Remember how this is the book that’s really about Laura Bush, even though the names and some of the circumstances are changed? That makes Charlie Blackwell George Bush, although his family is from Wisconsin, not from Texas. And reading about Charlie Blackwell/George Bush as a romantic lead has been bizarre.

It’s probably no surprise that I’m anything but a George Bush fan — I can’t stand the man, in fact. And yet in the context of this book, he’s … well, obnoxious quite a lot, but also sometimes charming. And every time I think he does something even a little bit charming, I have this moment where I think, ew! That’s George Bush! Ew! He’s awful, not charming in the least!

And yet in the context of the book, it makes sense that Alice is attracted to him. He is a lot of things that she is not — outgoing, confident, determined, at ease with people — and they make a good pair in some ways. And I like Alice a lot. In fact, she is in some ways kind of like me, or at least I feel some kinship with her. Her way of thinking and acting is familiar to me. But … she married George Bush! Ew!

There are lots of moments where Charlie/George does something utterly obnoxious such as order Alice around, get mad at her if she isn’t politically supportive enough, or assume she’s going to drop her career for his sake, and then I have fun getting annoyed and yelling at him for being the jerk that he is. But then they make up, and I understand that Alice is happy once again, and that’s a good thing, because I like Alice, but it means she’s happy with George Bush. Ick! And then there are the sex scenes, which are the weirdest of all …

This book has been an interesting imaginative exercise, as it makes me think about how someone I like could be attracted to someone I most definitely don’t, and how the person I most definitely don’t like can sometimes be likable. And also how a sometimes likable person is capable of doing awful things, like start the Iraq war. I’m very curious to see what Sittenfeld does with the rest of the story; the couple isn’t even married yet and the presidency is way off in the future.

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Figuring out audio books

I’ve had a mixed experienced with audio books so far this year; the first one I finished I loved at first and was bored with by the end. I’m in the middle of my second one now and can’t wait to hear more.

I was looking forward to the first one, Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection, having heard excellent things about it. And it might have worked better if I read it rather than listened to it. I’m still not sure which type of book works best on audio; while I’ve enjoyed listening to mystery and detective fiction in the past, in the last six months or so a couple of examples haven’t worked well for me, and I’m beginning to wonder whether the genre is tricky to listen to. The Manual of Detection didn’t work well and Agatha Christie didn’t either, while Maisie Dobbs worked great, as did P.D. James. I’m thinking that perhaps the more plot-driven books are harder to listen to, while the slower-paced ones that focus a lot on character and setting work better.

I started off enjoying The Manual of Detection. It’s opening is dark and atmospheric, with a strange, noirish mood to it. It’s set in an unknown city where it’s always raining, and the main character, Charles Unwin, rides to work on a bicycle complete with an umbrella to keep him dry. He’s a clerk in a large detective agency, and he’s very happy with his job processing the reports of a detective he’s never met Travis Sivart. The detective agency is a cold, mechanistic place where people follow strict rules and focus only on their own specialized tasks, nothing else. We learn nothing about any private life Charles Unwin might have; he’s basically a cipher, and he’s perfectly happy to stay that way. When he finds himself unexpectedly promoted to the rank of detective, the only thing he wants is his old job and his old peaceful life back.

All that was excellent; I loved the mood and the tone of the book. But then as Unwin tries to find Sivart in order to return everything to normal, the plot gets odder and odder, more and more fantastical, and I started to lose interest. I’m not quite sure whether it was the plot that didn’t work for me, the fantastical element, or the fact that I was listening to it, but by the end, I was only half paying attention. It was a disappointment.

Now I’m listening to Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel American Wife, and I’m mesmerized. It’s a loose, fictionalized retelling of the life of Laura Bush, and I’m loving its slow, thoughtful pace and tone. The main character is named Alice, and she’s intriguing, in an odd, dull sort of way — she’s careful, quiet, bookish, and independent, not that exciting of a main character, and yet awful things happen to her and soon enough she will become a really well-known and important person (I haven’t gotten to that part yet). It’s fascinating to watch her respond to everything life throws at her.

So, perhaps I need to give up listening to plot-driven mysteries and focus on slow-paced character-driven novels instead?

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Olive Kitteridge

I really loved Elizabeth Strout’s book Olive Kitteridge. This is the first book of linked stories I’ve read, and I liked the genre more than I expected to. I’m not sure whether this is because Strout does a particularly good job with it or because I like the genre for itself, but in this case it worked beautifully. I can be uncertain about reading short story collections because it feels as though they require so much energy: you have to orient yourself to new characters and new situations each and every time. You have to do that with linked stories too, but with Olive Kitteridge there is enough to tie all the stories together that I felt a sense of coherence and wholeness that was satisfying.

Olive herself is the main thread that ties the book together, although there are others; she appears in each chapter, sometimes as the main character and sometimes only briefly, as a minor character in someone else’s story. The first chapter is from the point of view of Olive’s husband, Henry, a man other people in their town feel pity for, because Olive is known for being difficult — moody, unhappy, harsh, critical. But Henry, in spite of longings he feels for other kinds of relationships, loves her, a love that is a source of mystery for other characters and for the reader, too.

Olive lives in the town of Crosby, on the coast of Maine, which is the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else and secrets are hard to keep. She was a junior high math teacher — retired now — of the sort who terrified her students with her prickly teaching persona. She and Henry have one son, Christopher, whom they both love deeply, but not necessarily in a healthy way; he feels that she has smothered him and it’s no surprise when his new wife whisks him off to California, to get as far away from the in-laws as possible.

One of the things that is so wonderful about the book and about how Strout uses the linked story structure is that we get a satisfyingly complex view of the characters. In one story — one of my favorites — we see into Olive’s mind on her son’s wedding day and watch her as she struggles with having to let her son go to a woman she does not like and listen to that woman mock the dress she is proud of. In other stories, though, we see what other characters think of her — the way they dismiss or fear or marvel at her — and we can compare what it’s like to be someone with a rich and complicated interior life and to see that person from the outside, understanding some things and being bewildered by others. We can see what Olive means to a whole range of people — that she can be a figure of fun, a tragic figure, an overbearing and frightening woman one wants to run away from. And we can also see that she frequently has no idea of all those perceptions people have of her. Other people have no idea what she thinks and feels and suffers, except for glimpses now and then.

Many of the stories are sad, although in a way that is recognizable and true, not overdone. They are about longing, love, relationships gone bad, new relationships attempted, relationships that survive, remarkably; in some cases they are about violence, death, and loss — about a whole range of things that can and do happen to people living together in one place.

The place itself is another thread that holds the book together. Olive and Henry have built their house together and have also built a house for their son, and it is no surprise that they are deeply shaken when their son escapes to California. It’s no surprise that he needs to escape, either. That house was intended as an act of love, but it couldn’t help but appear to Christopher as a prison, Olive’s attempt to keep him at her side, following in her footsteps. Other characters come and go, figuring out who they are as they define themselves against the town that has shaped them. The town changes, but it remains an isolated place that’s beautiful and distinctive, and that is hard to really leave behind.

So yes, I loved this book. It’s beautifully written, emotionally complex, full of nuanced characters, and moving in the stories it tells.

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An absurdly good day

If I ever start to feel bad about my life in any way, I need to remember that now and then I’m able to have days like the one I had today. I’m almost embarrassed to describe it, it was so decadent.

I don’t have classes on Fridays (most faculty members don’t at my school), and I usually spend it working on grading and preparing for classes. But since I’m willing to work (from home) on Saturday and Sunday — and often I have to to get everything done — I can sometimes not do any work at all on Friday. And that was the case today.

I woke up at 8:00 — and right there I realize I’m admitting something that might make people jealous, although the truth is that my teaching schedule is an evening one, so I tend to stay up late and wake up late — and got ready to go on a bike ride. Hobgoblin and I had plans to ride with my cycling BFF (that’s how she referred to me today). We were out the door at 9:00, and although it was only 24 degrees at the time, the temperature was on the way up (to the mid-30s). We rode the beach loop, which, as Emily noted once, sounds like an easy, short spin, although it’s actually a 50-mile loop, largely downhill the way there and largely uphill the way back, three hours total.

Although it was chilly, the day was lovely — perfectly sunny and clear. We dodged a few patches of ice, but mostly the roads were dry. The highlight of the trip, as always, was a stop at Crumbs bakery for a cupcake, and I got my favorite, a very boring but yummy vanilla one, even though Hobgoblin told me it has something like 700 calories. Oh, well — I burned way more calories than that. I think we made a little bit of a scene in the cupcake shop, with our silly-looking clothing and our loud laughter. But it’s so easy to laugh when we’re pumped full of adrenaline, and that’s one of my favorite things about cycling — when I’m with other people and we’re all feeling good, everything everybody says is funny.

After the ride and after a shower and a quick lunch, I was off to the masseuse. Hobgoblin bought me a gift certificate for an hour-long massage for my birthday, and I’d made an appointment for this afternoon. I know massage is a great thing to help my muscles recover from the stress of training, but I’m reluctant to spend the money on it because it seems so self-indulgent. So I’m happy to have someone else spend the money on it for me. It was lovely.

And then it was late afternoon and time for my chiropractic appointment. I know not everyone likes going to the chiropractor, but I love it. It’s a chance to have someone massage my shoulders (again), crack my neck, ask me how I’m doing, give me some attention, and generally indulge me for a while. I’ve been seeing my chiropractor for a few years now, and she’s become a little bit like a friend.

And then it was off to the local drive-in burger joint, the Sycamore, a 50s diner that’s not just 50s-themed, but actually from the 50s. I had a bacon cheeseburger. Yum.

And then I had my weekly Friday evening yoga class. It’s a fairly slow-moving, stretchy class, not at all like power yoga, and it’s the kind of class I can do fine in even if I’ve ridden my bike for 50 miles already that day. The teacher is great and many of the students know each other and are very friendly, so it has an upbeat, light atmosphere. We’re all serious yoga students, but we don’t take the whole thing too, too seriously.

And now I’m home, doing a bit of blogging and planning to pick up some books. Now is that not an absurdly good day, or what?

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Poetry: Ted Hughes

I’ve been reading my collection of Ted Hughes poetry very, very slowly, and in spite of the slowness enjoying it very much. My edition is one of the lovely Faber anniversary editions, and although I don’t like the lack of dates or any other acompanying contextual information, the book looks great and the poems themselves are wonderful. I’ve read Hughes before, for a grad class or two, but it’s been a while, and this is the first time I’m reading much beyond the usual anthology inclusions.

Although I’ve read only the first 35 pages out of 140 or so, it’s clear that Hughes’s main topic is nature and often animals. Among the titles of poems I’ve read so far are these: “The Thought-Fox,” “The Jaguar,” “The Horses,” “Hawk Roosting,” “The Bull Moses,” “View of a Pig,” “Second Glance at a Jaguar.” Other poems have animals in them even if the title doesn’t mention it, and of the poems without any animals in them, most are about nature. Other titles include “Wind,” “October Dawn,” “Mayday on Holderness,” “February,” “November,” “Snowdrop,” “Pike,” “Thistles,” “Fern,” and “Full Moon and Little Frieda.”

What’s striking about the poems is the way animals and nature are not sentimentalized or romanticized. The poems have a dark, almost harsh tone to them, and while they are beautiful, it’s a stark kind of beauty. Often we get a purely exterior view of the animal in question, such as the haunting “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” which describes a jaguar pacing relentlessly in a zoo. “View of a Pig” is about a dead pig in a wheelbarrow that the speaker thumps “without feeling remorse” because “it was too dead. Just so much / A poundage of lard and pork. / Its last dignity had entirely gone. / It was not a figure of fun.” The poem is about the changes that death brings, the way it transforms a being with dignity — because even a pig can have it — into a lump of flesh. It’s a harsh reality, but that’s exactly what these poems are about.

When we get an imagined interior view, as in the poem “Hawk Roosting,” which is written in first person from the hawk’s point of view, the voice is remote. The poem ends this way: “The sun is behind me. / Nothing has changed since I began. / My eye has permitted no change. / I am going to keep things like this.”  The hawk rejoices in its ability to kill: “I kill where I please because it is all mine. / There is no sophistry in my body: / My manners are tearing off heads.” The voice is otherworldly, speaking from a place and perspective that feels entirely different from the one we know. Humans don’t exist in that world.

In “The Bull Moses,” Hughes tries to imagine what goes on in the bull’s mind, and he does it by imagining what’s not there: “He would raise / His streaming muzzle and look out over the meadows, / But the grasses whispered nothing awake, the fetch / Of the distance drew nothing to momentum / In the locked black of his powers.” The calmness, the complete disinterest in the natural world that is moving all around him is mysterious and haunting, and there’s nothing to do but watch it and marvel.

While the animal poems describe the otherness of creatures and captures their least “human” moments, the poem “Thistles” personifies the plant, describing the thistles as men fighting feuds. However, while the thistles may be like people, they are like people at their harshest, ugliest, and most frightening. I’ll close with this poem in its entirely, to give you a fuller taste of Hughes’s voice:

Against the rubber tongues of cows and the hoeing hands of men

Thistles spike the summer air

Or crackle open under a blue-black pressure.

Every one a revengeful burst

Of resurrection, a grasped fistful

Of splintered weapons and Icelandic frost thrust up

From the underground stain of a decayed Viking.

They are like pale hair and the gutturals of dialects.

Every one manages a plume of blood.

Then they grow grey, like men.

Mown down, it is a feud. Their sons appear,

Stiff with weapons, fighting back over the same ground.

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